July 28, 2014

Cape Point probably won't
reopen to ORVs until late August


A combination of birds and turtles will keep Cape Point closed to off-road vehicles until probably late August, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore's natural resource program manager, Randy Swilling, said today.

The popular Cape Point area was closed to vehicles this year on April 2 because of piping plover breeding activity.

It remains closed by one American oystercatcher chick that has not fledged and a colony of least terns with chicks.

However, the expansion of sea turtle nests that are approaching their hatch date is also going to figure into the reopening of the Point, Swilling said.

The oystercatcher chick is 39 days old and should fledge any day, he said.  However, according to the National Park Service's ORV management plan for the seashore, the 200-meter buffer for chicks must remain in place for another two weeks after fledging is observed.

Swilling said that is because the oystercatcher chicks are "big, clumsy" birds. Observing the chicks flying for the prescribed distance isn't enough in their case.

"The oystercatchers need more practice," he explained. "The buffers stay up to make sure their wings strengthen."

Oystercatchers are not federally listed as threatened or endangered species, but instead are listed as "species of special concern" by the state of North Carolina. Because of that protection and because of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, park officials have said that the birds must be protected on the seashore.

On the other hand, buffers for piping plover chicks, which are federally listed as threatened, can be lifted as soon as the birds are observed flying for a specified distance.

Buffers for the least terns, which also are not federally protected, can come down as soon as all of the chicks on the ground fledge, Swilling said.

However, when the buffers for chicks are lifted won't really matter in the decision to reopen Cape Point to vehicles.

A sea turtle nest will be expanded tomorrow between Ramp 44 and the Point just north of the area known as the "narrows." The beach is not wide enough there to allow off-road vehicles to detour behind the nest.

When sea turtle nests are laid, they get a 10- by 10-meter buffer around them with symbolic fencing and signage to keep vehicles and pedestrians out, according to the ORV plan. They are "expanded" 50 to 55 days after they are laid, which means that the closure is extended to the surf line.

The nests usually hatch at this time of year in 60 to 62 days, Swilling said. The expansion stays in place until three days after the nests hatch. If for any reason the nest doesn't hatch at the expected time, it is excavated on Day 80 to check whether the eggs are viable.

In addition, there is another nest in the area that will block ORV access to Cape Point. It will be expanded on Aug. 10.

The two nests were laid early in the season when the sand was still cool, he added, so it could take them a bit longer to hatch.

Swilling said those are the only two nests at this point that would block ORV access to Cape Point.

The reopening date, he said, could go at least up to the date the Point opened last year, which was Aug. 23. Last year, however, ORV access was closed again on Sept. 23 for a sea turtle nest expansion.

Last year's Aug. 23 reopening was the latest since the formal required buffers were introduced in 2008 after a consent decree ended a lawsuit by environmental groups to force the seashore to develop an ORV plan.

Cape Point has opened as early as July 18, which was in 2011. In the others years, it has opened in late July or early August.


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